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The Software Patent Threat
Software patents threaten practically software development projects, be them propriatory or open source, the OpenSceneGraph is no execption. Software Patents are legal in USA, Australia and Japan, but also have a rather dubious legality in Europe. Currently the European Union are processing legislation that could either ratify the move to legalising Software Patents that patent professionals and some multi-nationals have been driving for, or instead to reaffirm the non patentability of software that was original part of the Eurepean Patent Convention.
The way the Software Patents directly affect the OpenSceneGraph project is that both the core developers, developers that use the OpenSceneGraph for their application development and their end users all are open to the possibility of litigation from agressive patent entities. These patents entities may take the form of a company trying to destroy or damage a competitor by preventing them from using, distributing and selling their software, through to entities seeking rents - the price of which is determined by the greed of the patent entity, not free market forces.
The less obvious effects on the OpenSceneGraph project are the features that won't be developed simply because of known patents covering areas of interest, there is already several areas where development work has been curtailed, and as the patent thicket grows thicker this is only likely to become worse and just avoiding the patents will take more and more of our time slowing development.
So far the OpenSceneGraph project has escaped any major detrimental effects of software patent, but this is not something we can assume long term. Other open source projects have already been forced to be stopped entirely or have features dropped because of recieving cease and desist letter from patent entities, a recent example was the VideoLan project dropping support for a particular codec, but also include FreeType dropping support for high quality fonts, GNU compile not implenment certain optimization - all of which directly affect many OpenSceneGraph users. With the OpenSceneGraph become ever more popular the visibility as a target for litigation increases.
Approaches for Minmizing Risks
To minimize the risk to developers and end users of patent litigation, we can take several approaches:
- Support legislation and reforms of the patent system that reaffirm the non Patentability of Software in as many counties as possible.
- Develop software that is modular so only parts that are needed in an end user product are included in it, minimizing exposure to features that may attrack aggressive patent attention.
- Develop software so that features such that the interface allow the implementation to rewritten without a large impact on the rest of the program.
- Avoid developing software that is has known patents associated with it.
- Community deterant - if an aggressive patent entity happens to be provider of products to end users of the OpenSceneGraph then those customers could perhaps apply pressure for that entity to back off less damage its own business.
- Maintain licensing that ensures their is no monetry value in the OpenSceneGraph software, this is already the case, and for a patent entity purely wanting to make money then their is no money in the pot to raid.
Even with these approaches we can't fully avoid the threat, the only way to do that would be have software made unpatable right round the world, or stop developing completely, and go get a job stacking shelves at a local market and never touch a computer again. Techniques like the above for minimizing the risks only likely to reduce the risk by a small amount, and the actually remidies can have a deterimental on the project in themsleve - such as not implementing useful functionality. The project is already suffering in this way :-|
The most effective remedy of all the above is to help get legislation through to stop the patentability of software, this does require us to down tools and invest time and energy into the effort, and learn about the legislation, legislative bodies and the parties involved and to engage with them, either through letter writing or even better face to face meetings. This may be very alien for us, but its an effort that is as anything else you may do in your computing career.
Known Software Patents that may directly overlap on OpenSceneGraph source code and usage.
- None known at present.
Known Software Patents that may indirectly overlap (via 3rd party libraries) on OpenSceneGraph usage.
- Forgent JPEG Patent
- TrueType Patent
Main areas of activity with respect to software patent legislation world wide right now:
- The Europen Software Patents Directive
- USA review
- India patent legislation